A FEW miles from where I live, there is a sign emblazoned with a picture of an osprey. This sign proudly informs me that I am entering the Cairngorms National Park.

Many less familiar with the area – not least visitors to Scotland – will experience a moment of keen anticipation as they pass this marker. Surely, you are now entering a special place – somewhere to enjoy and experience a landscape in which the natural world is allowed to flourish in all of its wonder.

But sadly, no. As you enter the national park, you quickly realise that the landscape remains much the same as it was before. You’re still surrounded by acres and acres – and seemingly endless acres more – of intensively managed and ecologically impoverished grouse moors.

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This is a place where trees are not allowed to thrive. Where globally precious peat bogs are now emitting rather than soaking up carbon dioxide because they have been deliberately burnt and drained. Where humans have wiped out or forced out wildlife from birds of prey to mountain hares to pollinating insects.

Is this really what we want? Is this the best we can expect from our most protected landscapes?

The respected International Union for the Conservation of Nature defines a national park as “large natural or near-natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes along with the complement of species and ecosystems characteristic of the area”. In other words, wild places where nature is allowed to look after itself.

But we are a long way from that. Despite the sometimes Herculean efforts of their staff and volunteers, and despite some superb conservation initiatives, Scotland’s two existing national parks – the Cairngorms, and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs – are far from making the contribution to nature recovery they should, and could, be doing.

The National:

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park (shown above), for example, has 143 areas designated for nature. Yet shockingly, about one in five of these nature reserves are “not in a favourable condition” – about the same as similarly designated areas in the rest of Scotland.

When it comes to protecting and restoring nature, the sad truth is that Scotland’s national parks are, in many ways, notional parks.

Thanks to the deal struck between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, at least one new national park should be declared by 2026. There are good reasons for this.

Scotland continues to lag behind other countries in creating national parks. Denmark – with a similar population to Scotland, but just over half its size – has six national parks. Austria, the same size as Scotland but with double the population, also has six. Albania is only one-third the size of Scotland, but is blessed with an impressive 14.

So designating just one more national park for Scotland by 2026 doesn’t actually feel very ambitious at all. We clearly have a lot of catching up to do.

But declaring new national parks should be more than a numbers game. In an era of climate breakdown and the sixth mass extinction, we urgently need national parks in more than name only. They need to be jewels in the crown of nature recovery.

Given that Scotland is already one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, and given that our national parks are not even holding the line when it comes to halting the loss of nature, we need to be bold and ambitious.

A key solution is to make large-scale nature restoration – or rewilding – the core purpose of our national parks, and to require all public bodies that operate in them to deliver on that purpose.

This would redirect money and effort behind one unifying goal – enabling our parks to lead the way in helping Scotland become a rewilding nation that works with nature, instead of against it.

This could help create the national parks we should have – places where wildlife can thrive, carbon can be locked away as nature recovers, and where people can have genuine contact with wild nature alongside enjoying fresh, nature-based economic opportunities.

Rather than being landscapes serving the needs of a select few, national parks could become places where the benefits of nature restoration serve everyone – especially those who live and work in them.

And time is of the essence. Our two existing parks seem now at last, some 20 years since their creation, to be taking steps on a path that leads to placing nature first. But their new sibling will not have the luxury of spending two decades before placing nature recovery front and centre.

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We are in the era of climate and nature breakdown – there is no longer any time to waste. Our new national park must have nature as its priority from day one.

Imagine the positive impact any new parks could make if we give them the clear purpose of rewilding, together with the means to make a difference for us all and for future generations.

This would be hugely popular too. An opinion poll commissioned by the charity Rewilding Britain last year showed that 83% of the public support Britain’s national parks being made wilder.

Right now, the Scottish Government is consulting on how we want our national parks to be. We have until November 30 to speak out and be heard.

Now is not the time for tweaking around the edges. We must update the outdated National Parks Act – now a quarter of a century old – so that it is fit for purpose when it comes to battling climate breakdown, and for giving the natural world a chance of recovery.

National parks should be beacons of hope in Scotland’s journey towards becoming a rewilding nation. This is our chance to make that happen.

I, for one, look forward to the day when I pass that sign welcoming me into the Cairngorms and I can instantly see and feel the wonderful, life-affirming difference a national park can bring to our landscapes, and to the wildlife and people within it.

The Scottish Rewilding Alliance is a collaboration of more than 20 organisations who share a mission to enable rewilding at a scale new to Scotland. See www.rewild.scot

Steve Micklewright is convenor of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance (www.rewild.scot) and chief executive of rewilding charity Trees for Life (treesforlife.org.uk)